(Note: Our editor Christina translated the text from German into English.
The original German version can be found here --> Time is Up for Irony: Notes on Hannah Gadsbys Nanette)
Cynicism is easy. It it a way to get involved in something without getting involved in something. In male-dominated stand up comedy, punchlines and ironic distance to the subject have become essential genre conventions. Actress and comedian Hannah Gadsby, known for her lesbian “gender not-normal” perspective in the Australian television dramedy Please Like Me, completely does away with these conventions in her show Nanette and in doing so, criticizes central mechanisms of the culture industry and the patriarchy.
Hannah Gadsby recalls how she was confronted with homophobic and sexist violence at a bus stop at the age of 17, however; a man assumed that she was a man - albeit a “faggot” - and was hitting on his girlfriend. She mentions this at first just for the punchline: the man apologizes to her when he realizes she is a woman - he doesn’t hit women. The audience laughs. She then delivers several other punchlines that have to do with her past: with her coming out; with the omnipresent and until 1997 legally backed homophobia she faced growing up in her small hometown in Tasmania; with her deep-seated dissatisfaction, her depression, her isolation and her shame. It appears to be a self-deprecating coming to terms with the past. But Gadsby has had enough of not telling her story and her memories to the end. She has had enough of jokes about women and lesbians, even if they are ironic. In the middle of her show, she radically questions all of this and her profession itself: “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me. If that means that my comedy career is over, then, so be it.”
Gadsby is through with self-deprecation, cynicism and humiliating and retraumatizing punchlines. She thus tells one memory vividly to the end. The man who let her have it at the bus stop returns, “he beat the shit out of me and nobody stopped him,” precisely because she is a lesbian woman and does correspond to the dominant gender norms. And because of these dominant gender norms, she did not turn to the law enforcement authorities: “I thought that was all I was worth. And I didn’t take myself to hospital. And I should have. But I didn’t, because that’s all I thought I was worth. I am ‘incorrect’ and that is a punishable offense.”
Like a successful drag performance, Gadsby’s show is mimetic. Mimesis involves imitating, deconstructing and reassembling someone different from us (but this process can also apply to societal practices) with aesthetic intention so that the individual pieces no longer belong to a whole in a hierarchical relationship. In Hannah Gadsby’s case, this applies to narrative modes and gender norms that are de- and reconstructed. They are placed in new relations to stand up comedy as a genre and to the masculine as an idealized norm. In comedy, life stories and societal shortcomings are commodities; what counts are the punchlines that pay off, ones with a high short-term rate of return. Aesthetics and ethics only have a functional significance. Stories are then told to the end if it pays off. But “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” (Joan Didion); to tell our stories first gives history and meaning to our lives and makes it possible to orient ourselves morally in the world.
The time is up for irony.
Great news: Hannah Gadsby says she's no longer quitting comedy (click to read full article by Broede Carmody)